by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 3/17/11
I’ve been listening to the litany of anti-union complaints echoing throughout the chatter that passes for news in this country. Foremost, it seems, is the complaint that union members, particularly in the public sector, enjoy “Cadillac” health insurance plans. And their copays for these plans, the complaints go, aren’t as crippling as those paid by non-unionized workers who are lucky enough to have healthcare. As is the norm for propaganda, there’s a lot of misinformation in these reports. Many union members working in the private sector, such as members of Teamsters locals, enjoy better healthcare plans than many public employees—who are the current target-de-jour for the feudalist movement. And there are unionized workers, public and private, who have yet to win the right to healthcare. But there is a basic truth in this media chatter: Unionized workers are more likely to have health insurance, and it’s more likely to be better health insurance than most working Americans enjoy. It’s not better, however, than the universal healthcare that workers in every other industrialized Western democracy take for granted as a birthright.
So my question, which should be painfully obvious, is why are we vilifying union members for successfully defending a right we should all enjoy? Rather than adopting the feudalist argument that none of us should have healthcare, why not insist that we all have healthcare? Why don’t we all fight to have the same healthcare as Teamsters have? The same can be said for all other rights that unions have successfully defended. Shouldn’t we all have the right to some modicum of job security—perhaps a mandate that we be fired for a reason, as union contracts often provide, rather than be fired on a political or ageist whim? Shouldn’t we all have a right to be protected as whistleblowers when we see our bosses acting immorally or illegally? Shouldn’t we all have a right to contribute to a guaranteed pension system that won’t be looted by our employers? Shouldn’t we all have the right to work in a safe environment? Shouldn’t we all have the ability to negotiate a living wage? Is this really a radical notion?
I can go on and on here, but my point is simple. Why side with our oppressors as they try to expand their reach and oppress everyone? Why not side with those who are standing up and fighting back. Toward that end, instead of fighting against unions, why not fight to have one of your own? Why not fight to unionize everybody? And like all revolutions, it doesn’t stop there. Unionize everybody! And fight to keep our unions from being corrupted.
Unions fought for and won fundamental rights that we all now take for granted—things ranging from child labor and minimum wage laws to lunch breaks and the 40 hour week. And as union wages increased, so did non-union wages, since union contracts raised the wage floor in our free market for labor. As long as union jobs offered better pay and benefits, they would attract better workers, which worked out well for unionized businesses. In order to compete to hire qualified workers, non-union businesses had to match union wages and benefits. Some of us paid union dues, but all of us reaped the benefits those dues bought. The union effect balances the profit-wage equation. Take it away, and the equation tips back toward the radical social inequity of the 19th century and the period right before the Great Depression.
And this is what is happening. As the wage floor increased, the need for individuals to join unions decreased. Ultimately, the minority of workers who remained unionized carried the responsibility of maintaining competitive wage and benefit levels for everyone. With the deindustrialization brought on by the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-era, corporate-authored free trade pacts came a collapse of the unionized sector, as corporations relocated production overseas to take advantage of non-unionized sweatshop labor working under unregulated conditions with little or no worker safety, child labor, or overtime rules. The result was the drop in the domestic wage floor that unions are desperately fighting against.
With the rise of corporate-owned media monopolies and the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to poison the political system with unlimited bribes in the form of political contributions, corporations are now ratcheting up their fight to bring the sweatshop economy home, essentially erasing the social gains of the 20th century. Unions, decimated as they are, are the last remaining organized social force that is standing up against this new feudalism.
But the fight isn’t just about saving the middle class. When Congress enacted the Wagner Act in 1935, it acknowledged how the drop in wages during a similar corporate push against workers in the 1920s led to a drop in consumer power, which ultimately led to the great depression. The Wagner Act was designed to protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The Wagner Act wasn’t just about protecting of workers’ rights. It was about protecting the economy against another depression by leveling the bargaining power of labor and corporations, and in turn, keeping the wage floor at a sustainable level.
I’m a union member. We’re carrying the fight not just for ourselves and our own jobs and contracts but for all workers. And if the authors of the Wagner Act are correct, we’re also fighting to save the US economy from destruction brought on by an out of control pathological greed. But we are too few in number and the fight that corporations and Wall Street are waging against American workers is overwhelming. Please don’t leave us standing here alone. And don’t be duped into thinking that we are your enemies.
We are in for a historically unprecedented fight as a small powerful elite are rolling back a century of social and democratic gains. Join us, and we won’t leave you behind. Rather than being duped into vilifying those of us who are still holding on to the American dream, join us. Rather than being tricked into organizing against us, organize with us. We are you. Unionize everybody!
This is my new two-word meme. Unionize everybody! You can shout it or tweet it. It fits in a seven-second “news” soundbite. It’s a good answer even when nobody’s asking a question. You can write it on a placard or spray it on a wall. But make yourself heard: Unionize everybody!
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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